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Certified Copycat

The Devil's Double (2011)

Sofie Van Mieghem/Lionsgate

"House of Saddam," a 2008 BBC-HBO production, was a brilliantly observed insight into the sordid brutality of Saddam Hussein's reign as leader of the Baath party. One of its greatest successes lay in Philip Arditti's masterful portrayal of Saddam's eldest son, the maniacal Uday Hussein, a man whose lustful, violent nature would put most Roman emperors to shame. Lee Tamahori's "The Devil's Double" delves deeper into the mythos of Uday (Dominic Cooper), utilizing the memoirs of Latif Yahia (also played by Mr. Cooper) — Uday's former classmate who was forced to become his fiday (body double) — as source material; and it certainly makes for fascinating viewing.

It's the mid-1980s; and Latif, a soldier in the Iraqi army serving in the Iraq-Iran war, is summoned to the presidential palace where he is met by Uday, a goofy playboy with a dark side. Uday informs Latif that due to their passing resemblance, he has been chosen to be his fiday — delivering the news as if bestowing a great honor. Latif of course has no real choice; and although he's initially unwilling, imprisonment and the threat of his family disappearing in Abu Ghraib soon convince him otherwise.

At once, the dichotomous nature of the two men is painfully obvious as Latif's understated loyalty is in marked contrast to Uday's feckless, rich-boy immaturity. Mr. Cooper masterfully flits between the two; and so convincing and disparate are his interpretations of Latif and Uday that it's easy to forget that he plays both roles.

Accordingly, Latif undergoes minor surgery and coaching in Uday's ways (cigars, girls, golden guns) to transform into his fiday. Coaxed forcefully into begrudgingly accepting his role, Latif sometimes dares to defy Uday and suffers the violent consequences of doing so. In fact, Mr. Tamahori persistently intersperses luxurious decadence with graphic scenes of torture and ultra violence to serve as a reminder of the cruelty and heavy-handedness of the regime.

Conversely, the mood is sporadically lightened by moments of great humor and levity that only a figure as grotesque and ridiculous as Uday could inspire. A scene where Latif survives one of several assassination attempts and almost loses a finger sending Uday into a fit of anger — seemingly at the prospect of losing a finger himself to keep up the pretense that they are as one — is as funny as is it discomfiting.

By the time of the Kuwait war, Latif has settled into his role of helpless bystander and Uday's plaything du jour while Uday continues to spiral out of control, indulging as he does in rape, murder, alcoholism and drugs. There's an uneasy acceptance of Uday's behavior by Baath party stooges and yes men who turn a blind eye out of pure fear. It's a sad indictment of the reality that faced the Iraqi people, ruled as they were with an iron fist and the threat of a visit from the mysterious Iraqi Olympic committee and all its torturous techniques.

Only Latif and one of Uday's mistresses, Sarrab (a perfectly bored Ludivine Sagnier) ever dare defy Uday, despite the apparent futility of doing so and even then everything is not quite as it seems. In fact, Latif's ultimate bloody act of defiance proves to be the only effective means of escaping Uday's clutches.

The final act is less effective and seems rushed given what has gone before, which emphasizes that the real success of "The Devil's Double" lies in watching Mr. Cooper share screen time with himself. That said, the supporting cast is solid without ever threatening to steal any semblance of limelight away from Mr. Cooper, whose Uday is brilliantly childish and eccentric but is always tinged with a power-crazed sense of danger that befits a drug-addicted womanizer. His Latif is the antithesis of everything Uday stands for; and the contrast is so marked that it is to his credit that he manages to deliver two very impactful performances.

Mr. Tamahori's pedigree ensures that the action scenes are adept while Michael Thomas's script is pithy, witty and dramatic in equal measure. Production designer Paul Kirby manages to effortlessly and impressively meld 2011 Malta into late-'80s/early-90s Baghdad; and there's just enough historical detail to signpost the period in question without ever veering into stereotype or caricature. It's a slick looking picture; but the majority of the plaudits must be reserved for Mr. Cooper, whose performances here — particularly as Uday — are outstanding.


Opens on July 29 in the United States and on Aug. 12 in Britain.

Directed by Lee Tamahori; written by Michael Thomas, based on the life story of Latif Yahia; director of photography, Sam McCurdy; edited by Luis Carballar; music by Christian Henson; production design by Paul Kirby; costumes by Anna B. Sheppard; produced by Paul Breuls, Michael John Fedun, Emjay Rechsteiner and Catherine Vandeleene; released by Lionsgate (United States) and Icon (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 18 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Dominic Cooper (Uday Hussein/Latif Yahia), Ludivine Sagnier (Sarrab), Raad Rawi (Munem), Philip Quast (Saddam Hussein/Faoaz), Mimoun Oaissa (Ali), Khalid Laith (Yassem Al-Helou), Dar Salim (Azzam) and Nasser Memarzia (Latif’s Father).


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